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3rd Circuit vacates dismissal of FCRA lawsuit regarding sovereign immunity
On August 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of an FCRA lawsuit, holding that the federal government does not have sovereign immunity under the statute and can be held liable for reporting requirement violations. The plaintiff sued the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a student loan servicer for allegedly reporting two loans as past due even though he claimed both were closed with a $0 balance. The plaintiff notified the relevant consumer reporting agency who in turn notified the USDA and the servicer. When neither entity took action to investigate or correct the disputed information, the plaintiff sued all three parties for damages under Section 1681n and 1681o of the FCRA. The USDA moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity claims, which the district court granted on the grounds that the United States and its agencies are not subject to liability under the FCRA—a decision in line with opinions issued by the 4th and 9th Circuits.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit disagreed, instead siding with opinions issued by the D.C. and 7th Circuits that reached the opposite conclusion. According to the 3rd Circuit, the federal government and its agencies enjoy sovereign immunity from civil suits unless Congress unambiguously waives it within a statute. The FCRA provides that any “person” who either negligently or willfully violates the statute is liable to the consumer for civil damages, the appellate court wrote, noting that the term “person” is defined to include any “government or governmental subdivision or agency.” The appellate court stressed that Congress need not express its intent in any particular way, and that courts need only look at the statutory text to discern Congress’ intent. Where Congress wanted to use a narrower definition of “person” in the FCRA, it did so, the appellate court said, pointing to where the FCRA specifically excludes the federal government from the statutory obligations for persons who make adverse employment decisions based on credit reports. “We presume, therefore, that Congress’s failure to do so in §§ 1681n and 1681o was deliberate and intended to convey the full statutory definition,” the 3rd Circuit wrote, finding that Congress unambiguously waived the government’s sovereign immunity in enacting FCRA.
Florida court grants sovereign immunity to lender and company officials
On April 11, a Florida county court concluded that a defendant lender and certain company officials were entitled to sovereign immunity in a case concerning alleged usury claims. The plaintiff claimed the lender used its supposed federally-recognized tribal affiliation to escape state usury regulations. The court dismissed the complaint, however, finding that the lender is an “arm of the tribe” under a six-prong test established by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Breakthrough Management Group, Inc. v. Chukchansi Gold Casino & Resort. The test determines whether sovereign immunity should apply by examining, among other factors, an entity’s creation, the amount of control a tribe has over the entity, and the financial relationship between the tribe and the entity. According to the court, the defendant’s evidence suggests that the tribe created the defendant as a business entity “to generate and contribute revenues” to the tribe’s general fund. The court found that insufficient detail was presented to support the plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant pays a relatively small percentage of its gross revenues to the tribe. The court added that the plaintiff also failed to present evidence proving that large portions of the defendant’s revenue were distributed to non-tribal entities. In dismissing the case with prejudice, the court also dismissed claims against three individual defendants because they were entitled to sovereign immunity. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations demonstrated that the individuals committed the alleged wrongs in their capacities as employees and officers and therefore the “real party in interest” is the lender.
9th Circuit: Israeli company is not entitled to foreign sovereign immunity over malware claims
On November 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order denying a private Israeli company’s motion to dismiss claims based on foreign sovereign immunity. The Israeli company (defendant) designs and licenses surveillance technology to governments and government agencies for national security and law enforcement purposes. According to the opinion, the defendant markets and licenses a product that allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies to covertly intercept messages, take screenshots, or extract information such as a mobile device’s contacts or history. The plaintiffs (a messaging company and global social media company) sued the defendant claiming it sent malware through the messaging company’s server system to approximately 1,400 mobile devices to gather users’ information in violation of state and federal law, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act. The defendant moved to dismiss, claiming foreign sovereign immunity protected it from the suit. The defendant further contended that even if the plaintiffs’ allegations were true, it was “acting as an agent of a foreign state, entitling it to ‘conduct-based immunity’—a common-law doctrine that protects foreign officials acting in their official capacity.” The district court disagreed, ruling that common-law foreign official immunity does not protect the defendant in this case because the defendant “failed to show that exercising jurisdiction over [the defendant] would serve to enforce a rule of law against a foreign state.”
Although the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court that the defendant, as a private company, is not entitled to immunity, the panel affirmed on separate grounds. The 9th Circuit based its determination instead on the fact that “the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA or Act) occupies the field of foreign sovereign immunity as applied to entities and categorically forecloses extending immunity to any entity that falls outside the FSIA’s broad definition of ‘foreign state.’” Among other things, the 9th Circuit rejected the defendant’s claim that because governments use its technology it is entitled to the immunity extended to sovereigns. “Whatever [the defendant’s] government customers do with its technology and services does not render [the defendant] an ‘agency or instrumentality of a foreign state,’ as Congress has defined that term,” the appellate court wrote. In contrast to the district court, the 9th Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that it could claim foreign sovereign immunity under common-law immunity doctrines that apply to foreign officials (i.e., natural persons), finding that “Congress [had] displaced common-law sovereign immunity doctrine as it relates to entities.”
Online payday lender settles usury suit for $141 million
On June 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia approved a preliminary settlement to resolve putative class allegations against an online payday lending company and related entities (defendants) accused of issuing high interest loans through a “rent-a-tribe” lending operation. According to the class’s second amended complaint, the defendants’ “rent-a-tribe” operation was an “attempt to circumvent state and federal law by issuing high interest loans in the name of a Native American tribal business entity that purports to be shielded by the principle of tribal sovereign immunity.” The class—which consists of borrowers from throughout the U.S.—alleged that the defendants provided “financing and various lending functions” carrying “extortionately high interest rates for short-term loans” that were “far beyond legal limits,” and that the unlawful interest rates were not disclosed to borrowers during the application process. Additionally, the class alleged that the defendants failed to provide key loan terms or misrepresented the loan terms, including repayment schedules, finance charges, and the total amount of payments due. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants will pay a $65 million cash payment, cancel $76 million in high-interest loans, and provide other non-monetary relief.
4th Circuit: No waiver of sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA
On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of a consumer action. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), a student loan company, and the three major credit reporting agencies, alleging numerous claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to properly investigate disputes that federal student loans were fraudulently opened in his name. The Department filed a motion to dismiss to the FCRA claims against it arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based upon a claim of sovereign immunity. The lower court agreed, holding Congress had not affirmatively waived sovereign immunity for suits under the FCRA.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court noted that, although the FCRA includes a “government or governmental subdivision or agency” as part of the definition of “person” in the statute, there is a “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign,” and that waivers of sovereign immunity need to be “unambiguous and unequivocal.” The appellate court noted that Congress waived immunity in other sections of the FCRA, which were not at issue in this case and, had Congress waived immunity for enforcement purposes under the FCRA, it would raise a new host of “befuddling” and “bizarre” issues, such as the prospect of the government bringing criminal charges against itself. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the federal government may be a “person” under the substantive provisions, but that without a clear waiver from Congress, the federal government is still immune from lawsuits under the FCRA’s enforcement provisions.
District Court finds government is not immune from private claims under the FCRA
On March 22, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana denied the Defense Finance and Accounting Service’s (DFAS), a federal government agency within the Department of Defense, motion to dismiss a private action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction as a result of sovereign immunity. The court found that FCRA’s definition of person includes “government or governmental subdivision or agency,” and therefore, waives the United States’ sovereign immunity under FCRA. The court did not agree with DFAS’ position that the terms “government or governmental subdivision or agency” are too broad to constitute a wavier of sovereign immunity. In support of its position, the court cited a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit providing that the FCRA “unequivocally waives the United States’ sovereign immunity from damages for violations under the FCRA.”